I just got back from a road trip to Nashville, and had a good time picking with family and friends while there. The two gigs I played were quite enjoyable but pretty different from each other, and full of lessons for folks who wonder how it is to perform bluegrass.
The first performance was on Thursday night, at a place called the Sportsman's Grill in Hillsboro Village in Nashville. Now, bluegrass gigs in Nashville are actually pretty hard to come by, so sometimes in order to play, you need to accept a situation. You just have to "roll with the flow" and be ready to adapt to anything that comes up. This means that you need to have your music down pat---so that you can play it without having to think much about it---and you can cope with all the unplanned challenges that come up during a performance.
The Sportsman's is famous for lack of audience response---the band may play the whole night without having anyone there really listen and applaud. This can make it pretty hard to play on stage, if you're trying hard but you don't have any energy coming back to you. To go with that, the band is crowded into a small corner of the floor behind a pool table, and there are folks playing pool all around you---making motion and noise to distract you from what you're playing. So it can be difficult to get through the night and keep your spirits up, but in this case we had the band personnel and horsepower (and audience) to not only play satisfying music, but also to have a good time.
The job is Billy Smith's, and he plays guitar and sings. This Thursday he had Nancy Cardwell playing bass, and it was a pleasure to see her again (she's played bass before with Casey and Chris and the Two-Stringers.) Christopher was playing mandolin, and Craig Duncan played fiddle. That was the core band. They don't always have a four-piece band and have played many Thursday nights with just two or three band members, but this time we brought some reinforcements. My uncle John Hedgecoth, a long-time Nashville banjo picker and Murphy Method instructor [on the now-out-of-print cassette lessons], was playing banjo. Our friend and old band member, Dobro wizard Tuck Tucker, who recently moved to Nashville, was there too. And I was playing mandolin along with Chris. So we had a lot of musical horsepower on stage, and we had a good time going through a selection of bluegrass, some obscure songs and some standards. We hadn't all played together before, but everybody had plenty of experience and knew what to do.
This brings up a good point about what to play when you're with a group which includes people you haven't played with before. When the band leader says it's your turn to play a song, you need to pick out a number that everybody's likely to know. When you're performing in front of people, that's not the time to expect other band members learn a new song or tune you happen to like. So when it was my turn to lead a number, I chose things we all knew, like "Will You be Loving Another Man" or "Red Wing", so that everybody on stage could contribute easily. And we sounded good.
To make the evening even better, we had an enthusiastic audience. John's wife Lynn (a performer herself) and Tuck's wife Edwina were there, and gave us enthusiastic applause all night (between sinking some impressive pool shots). Their applause helped a lot. To have even two people responding to us changed the whole atmosphere of the performance. So we played our two sets and were happy. And if you're in the Nashville area, check out the Sportsman's Grill! ---you can hear bluegrass music there for free on Thursday nights. And please applaud loudly!
John Hedgecoth, Red Henry, Chris Henry, Casey Henry, Tuck Tucker at the Station Inn on July 25, 2008.
This brings us to the second performance, on Friday night, and it was something I'd looked forward to for weeks. Chris was booked at the World-Famous Station Inn, to play the first set of the evening. He said he wanted a family band for this gig, so we had Casey on bass, John on banjo, and me on mandolin and guitar, along with our old friend (call him an honorable family member) Tuck on Dobro. Now, the Station Inn is a significant gig--- possibly the most prestigious bluegrass club in Nashville. But as in any performance anywhere, something will always come up, and it often has to do with the sound.
The sound system was already set up for the band which was playing after us, so we had to play using their mike settings, and we had fewer mikes than we'd like. But with a stage full of seasoned performers, this was not a problem. We "doubled up" on mikes where we needed to. I had to use the same mike for my mandolin and vocals, but that wasn't difficult since I've often done so before. And ordinarily the microphones would have been set to a particular "mix" for our band--so that you'd hear just so much of our vocals, mandolin, guitar, banjo, and so forth---but since the sound board was set for the other band, we needed to "mix" our sound a different way. Fortunately, the sound system volume was high enough that we could listen from the stage and hear how we sounded, and we just moved in and out of the microphones and "mixed" ourselves---this is a learned skill, and something that experienced performers can do.
It was a pleasure to play. Chris sang lots of his original songs. Casey, as always, played really solid bass, holding the music together and giving us all a good foundation to work from. I'd only played at the Station three or four times before but I felt comfortable on the stage, largely because we had such a good band. Chris and John and Tuck were playing great, and I had a good time too. We played good music, and the people enjoyed it. And we sold some CDs after the set, which made us feel good (helped with the gas money, too).
So what conclusions can we draw from this Tale of Two Gigs? For one thing, it's really important to have your music down---to be able to play it in your sleep---before you get on stage, because there are ALWAYS difficulties and challenges that come up. (Often, playing the music is the easy part. You use all your energy coping with the unanticipated stuff.) For another thing, when you're performing, if something isn't right or distracts you or the sound system isn't set right, or nobody's listening, just KEEP PLAYING, keep the show going on, because that's the professional thing to do. You're there to play music, so pick!